Tuesday 16 January 2018

Martin McGuinness meeting Queen completes transition from IRA chief to statesman

Michael McHugh

MARTIN McGuinness has made the transition from IRA commander to statesman welcomed in the boardrooms and studios from Belfast to Hollywood.

He earned a reputation as a hard-liner in Derry when the conflict was at its worst 40 years ago and rose through the ranks of the IRA as the staunchest of critics of British policy in Ireland. At that time it was unthinkable that Mr McGuinness would meet the Queen, once dubbed the "queen of death" by republicans.

But during years of talks which led up to the republican and loyalist ceasefires in 1994 the former apprentice butcher, 62, became a pivotal figure and ambassador of Sinn Fein's evolution from political pariahs to partners in government in Northern Ireland.

Despite only being aged in his early 20s in 1972, he was called before a tribunal investigating the Bloody Sunday shooting dead of civil rights protesters by soldiers in Londonderry because it was widely believed that by then he had already risen high in the ranks of the IRA in his native city.

Mr McGuinness did not deny his involvement, admitting that he had been an IRA member but emphasising that he left two years later in 1974. The inquiry found that he had probably been armed with a sub-machine gun at the time of Bloody Sunday but did not engage in activities which could have justified the soldiers opening fire.

During ceasefire negotiations with the British Government in 1972, he was one of a handful of republican leaders flown to London for talks with then home secretary William Whitelaw, impressing negotiators with his strategic vision. That ceasefire ultimately broke down and there were many more years of bloodshed.

Mr McGuinness was convicted of IRA membership by the Special Criminal Court in 1973 after being caught with a car containing 250lb (113kg) of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition. He was to emerge from prison with a burnished reputation among republicans as the conflict reached its bloody nadir.

When the Queen was touring Northern Ireland for her Silver Jubilee in 1977, the IRA promised to give the monarch a visit to remember.

There were pitched battles in republican areas between republicans and the British Army, particularly west Belfast.

In Hillsborough, Co Down, the official residence of the Queen in Northern Ireland, well-wishers waved Union Flags while in Andersonstown republicans demonstrated. Crowds carried a black banner referring to the "queen of death".

After a torrid decade of hunger strikes, the killing of the Queen's cousin and last viceroy of India Lord Louis Mountbatten by the IRA, and the deaths of many, Mr McGuinness emerged as a powerful advocate for change in 1986 when his party decided to end its abstention from the Dublin parliament. He told those debating the move that the party would be led to an all-Ireland republic but it would be many more years before he would disavow support for violence.

He has dismissed suggestions that throughout the 1980s he was a leading member of the IRA, a time when the organisation was responsible for hundreds of murders including the Enniskillen bombing in 1987.

Eleven people were killed while attending a Remembrance Day ceremony in the lakeland town, prompting revulsion on both sides of the border and around the world. The Queen visited Enniskillen today.

Mr McGuinness has denied being a member of the IRA's Northern Command and said he had no knowledge of the Enniskillen bombing. Recently he described the attack as "absolutely wrong".

From the first IRA ceasefire in 1994 to ratification of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 he was Sinn Fein's chief negotiator and it was his ability to bring the party's grassroots with him which marked him out.

In the process Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP as the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, giving it a strong electoral base with room for manoeuvre and space to take decisions like supporting the decommissioning of IRA arms.

Once characterised by some unionists as a zealot fully subscribed to the armed struggle, the Mid Ulster MP's (he was elected in 1997) image has softened considerably since his elevation to Deputy First Minister at Stormont in 2007.

He enjoyed an easy and warm relationship with Democratic Unionist first minister Ian Paisley - they were nicknamed the "Chuckle Brothers" despite years of enmity. He has also formed a bond with Mr Paisley's successor, Peter Robinson.

Following the dissident IRA murder of two soldiers and a police officer in 2009, Mr McGuinness described the perpetrators as "traitors to Ireland" - earning the admiration of many unionists and the derision of dissidents.

However, meeting the Queen in Dublin during her visit last year was still a step too far. Mr Robinson travelled to Dublin without him to greet the monarch, who laid a wreath for the republican dead in a move noted by Sinn Fein.

Today Mr McGuinness will take that one step forward in meeting the Queen.

Recently the Deputy First Minister said: "From my perspective I will, as always, approach these matters in a very sensible way, recognising the allegiances of others and recognising their right to honour the person they regard as their Queen."

The former IRA man aged in his early 20s when paratroopers shot dead innocent civil rights protesters on Bloody Sunday will meet the commander in chief of that British army.

The transition is complete.

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